Happy 15th Birthday To ‘Arrested Development,’ The King Of Easter Eggs

Happy 15th Birthday To ‘Arrested Development,’ The King Of Easter Eggs

Even though the property has become about as awkward as George Michael, it initially distinguished itself as a comedy unlike any other.
Brian Willett
By

“Arrested Development” turns 15 today, about the age of George Michael Bluth during the show’s initial run. Even though the property has become about as awkward as George Michael, it initially distinguished itself as a comedy unlike any other.

The show ostensibly served as a commentary on the Enron-like excesses of big business wrapped in a dysfunctional family and community heavily dependent on the Bush dynasty (and eventually, if unintentionally, the Trumps). But for me that was all just a vehicle to deliver jokes crafted and executed in a way I’d never experienced.

It had everything, from layers-deep jokes that paid off episodes later to low-brow (and eyebrow) humor like pratfalls and an abundance of (often sexual) wordplay. The scripts were almost uncomfortably tight. It seemed creator Mitchell Hurwitz slaved over every single word, shot, location, and prop.

The attention to detail alone, especially for a sitcom, sparked endless content for websites. And its density helped maintain its place in pop culture, even years after its cancellation. Shows like “Firefly” or “Freaks and Geeks” engendered loyalty largely because they were good shows canceled too soon. “Arrested Development” kept and grew its fanbase because people kept discovering jokes.

If “Arrested Development” was ahead of its time, it was only by a few years. A show with so many layers—clever asides, call-backs, call-forwards, a small detail just out of focus enough—feels tailor-made for endless rewatches. It arrived just before the explosion of time-shifted viewing (I remember attempting to record a few episodes on tape).

Nielsen only began tracking DVR penetration in 2006, and the first series finale aired in February 2006. Netflix introduced streaming in 2007. Networks didn’t get a handle on hosting their own content for some time after. For a serialized comedy with so much depth, “Arrested Development” would have greatly benefitted from time-shifted and repeat viewing.

But I’d argue the show’s paucity is what drove the initial, fervent adoration. It existed in a time before the perpetual, all-encompassing television content ecosystem took over. It was a time before watching a show went hand-in-hand with phone in hand.

“Arrested Development” required work, either from your attention span or the effort to obtain episodes. Viewers watched and unpacked the show themselves. There’s something about realizing for yourself that a bench sign spells “Wee Brain” that creates a bond in a way that a website pointing out the joke never can.

It’s a good thing the show was so funny, because it reveled in a depravity perhaps only bested by animated shows. “Arrested Development” glossed over issues like (inhales) treason, perjury, “a long-inbred instinct for lying,” sacrilege, alcoholism, abandonment, rape (prison or otherwise), sexual identity, gender identity, incest, and rampant infidelity all with the ease of someone discussing the weather.

The show’s dark, dark tones were also buttressed by a Newport Beach setting filled with plenty of bright exterior and interior shots. It helped that the show came along as high definition adoption became widespread. First season episodes even have a “in high-definition” graphic on the DVD. This luminance propped up potentially gloomy, albeit absurd, scenes involving death, violence, or numerous hospital visits.

David Schwartz’s delightful and uplifting soundtrack, especially the ukulele, complemented the warm OC atmosphere. So many moments had their own, original songs: Motherboy, Balls in the Air, Mock Trial, Big Yellow Joint. These songs would pop up later in seemingly unrelated scenes, always to comedic effect. Yet another layer of humor, another reward for paying attention.

Thanks in large part to its density, “Arrested Development’s” power and popularity were never greater than in its absence, the seven-year gap between seasons three and four. But its legacy has taken a beating the last five years. The two new seasons rightfully never received the love of the original.

I didn’t dislike Season 4 as much as most. I appreciated what it tried and, like all “Arrested Development,” it gets better on the rewatch. But it is chore to watch and simply isn’t as funny as the first three seasons.

The remix didn’t improve it. The first half of Season 5 brought the Bluths back together (well, except for Lindsay). While it felt more like “Arrested Development” than Season 4, it failed to recapture the lightning of the original (the second half of Season 5 is still to come).

The newer seasons also have a troubling tendency to rely on past “hits” that had gestated in public consciousness for a decade. For three seasons, running jokes and catchphrases existed as an organic part of the show’s universe. In the last two seasons, they became a crutch rather than amusing continuity. Something similar has happened with Ron Howard, initially a quiet voice to the point of shyness who has progressed to a character almost too aware of his (initial) value to the show.

The kerfuffle regarding Jeffrey Tambor’s sexual harassment accusations, his treatment of Jessica Walter, and the male cast members’ reaction only heaped more woe on what had once been a beloved property. If the Tambor pall hadn’t preceded the fifth season, Hurwitz’s apparent absenteeism would have garnered more headlines. A once-beautifully manicured show has devolved into a saggy mess.

That follows Hurwitz’s career since the original run. His projects have not reached nearly the same level, critically or otherwise, since 2006. His first post-“Arrested” show was “Sit Down, Shut Up,” an animated show that followed teachers at a Florida high school.

The show flopped hard, despite featuring several “Arrested” alum (Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, and Henry Winkler) and plenty of other talent (like Tom Kenny, Will Forte, Nick Kroll, and Kristin Chenoweth). Neither critics nor audiences took to the show, and Fox moved it from Sunday night to a Saturday midnight slot less than halfway through the season.

His next project, “Running Wilde,” fared slightly better on Fox—in that it died at FX in prime time. Like “Sit Down,” few found it funny, if they found it at all. His most recent non-“Arrested” project was Netflix’s “Lady Dynamite,” starring Maria Bamford. The show was a critical success, but Netflix canceled it after two seasons. Hurwitz’s post-AD resume dovetails with the “Arrested Development’s” resurrection: promising but ultimately disappointing.

The last five years of the show’s sturm und drang make writing about its totality so difficult. That’s because there is nothing like the first three seasons. Other successful sitcoms have their own qualities; each one’s strength often highlighted by the sitcoms that followed. But none have been studied like an ancient ruin the way “Arrested Development” has.

None have offered so much to the viewer. In the sitcom landscape, the likes of “Cheers,” “Seinfeld,” “The Simpsons,” “The Office,” and “30 Rock” deservedly stand out. But “Arrested Development” stands alone.

Brian Willett is a Federalist senior contributor and the publisher of fwd, a daily tech newsletter. He tweets sporadically @brianjwillett

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